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Overcoming Depression with the Science of Happiness

04 Mar 2012 | Miriam Akhtar

As if receiving a visit from the black dog wasn't bad enough, one of the most depressing things about depression is the narrow choice of treatment available to you if and when you recognise what's ailing you. Depression is the common cold of mental health, affecting 1 in 10 people in the UK at any time and yet the treatment on offer traditionally boils down to anti-depressants or one of the talking therapies.

However "digging up sad stories from the past is not my idea of an effective treatment for depression" as one of my clients puts it. I can echo that sentiment. When I had depression I found that talking about my long dark night of the soul only left me drowning in that long dark night. What if you'd prefer to find a drug-free approach which doesn't involve picking over emotional scabs?

Positive psychology is the scientific study of happiness which, in the dozen or so years of its existence, has generated a number of tools that have been scientifically proven to increase positivity, happiness and well-being. Not so well known is that a delightful consequence of these evidence-based techniques is that they can also help alleviate depression.

It's an approach that runs counter to traditional therapy, which is based on exploring the source of suffering. With positive psychology it is more a case of 'what you focus on grows'. Focus on activities that make you happy and the indication is that your happiness will grow. When you focus on your depression, you may find yourself getting to know the black dog more than you care to!

What positive psychology offers is evidence-based self-help for milder cases of depression. It is not a substitute for clinical advice (always consult your GP) but it can complement other forms of treatment. These psychological strategies speed the recovery from depression, build your positivity and resilience and protect you against future visits from the black dog.

I found on my own journey out of depression that the key was practice and patience. It's a bit like a dimmer switch, the recovery happens gradually. You might not even notice how the darkness is receding and the light returning but the end result will be a more authentic, sustainable happiness.

Positive Psychology to Overcome Depression

  • Savour the moment: Relish, cherish, marvel, bask in and feast on life's good stuff to maximise your enjoyment of a positive experience and generate positive emotions.
  • Practise gratitude: The attitude of gratitude helps you to grow your awareness of the good things in life and overcome the brain's negativity bias, which spots what's wrong before it notices what's right.
  • Cultivate positivity: Make a 'playlist' of fun, enjoyable activities to act as a memory jogger when you're low. Positive emotions build your resilience and undo the effects of negativity.
  • Learn optimism: Pessimism puts you on the fast track to depression while optimism's cognitive tools act as psychological self-defence.
  • Nurture your relationships: Depression can lead to you withdrawing from social contact but relationships are vital for your happiness, so prioritise time in the company of your loved ones.
  • Learn to be mindful: Mindfulness meditation develops the brain's capacity for positive emotions and helps you to detach from negativity.
  • Discover your strengths: Depression saps energy, undermines your functioning and may highlight a lack of meaning in life. Your strengths act as energisers to support your recovery and provide a clue to a positive direction to take.

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About the authorMiriam Akhtar is a positive psychologist and author of a new book - Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression; Self-help Strategies for Happiness, Inner Strength & Well-being (Watkins, 2012)

Further information on this topic

The following research papers provide more evidence relating to the effectiveness of positive psychology interventions in treating depression:

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